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The following quote is from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1962 speech titled “The Ethical Demands for Integration.”

The absence of freedom is the imposition of restraint on my deliberation as to what I shall do, where I shall live, how much I shall earn, the kind of tasks I shall pursue. I am robbed of the basic quality of [human-ness]. When I cannot choose what I shall do or where I shall live or how I shall survive, it means in fact that someone or some system has already made these a priori decisions for me, and I am reduced to an animal. I do not live; I merely exist. The only resemblances I have to real life are the motor responses and functions that are akin to humankind. I cannot adequately assume responsibility as a person because I have been made a party to a decision in which I played no part in making.

Now to be sure, this is hyperbole in some agree but only to underscore what actually happens when a [person] is robbed of his [or her] freedom. The very nature of his [or her] life is altered and his [or her] being cannot make the full circle of personhood because that which is basic to the character of life itself has been diminished.

Incredibly powerful. MLK Jr’s namesake, Martin Luther had much to say about freedom as well. I am captured when Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian,

A Christian is lord of all, completely free of everything.

A Christian is servant of all, completely attentive to the needs of all.

According to Luther there is this duality to our freedom. We are completely free from [fill in the blank] and we are also completely free to [fill in the blank]. However, freedom is bound by love. Our freedom emerges from the freedom of God and ends at the beginning of our neighbor. The only way we can transgress the boundary of our neighbor is in and through love. Luther states:

Although we Christians are free from all works, we ought to use this liberty to empty ourselves, take on the form of servants, take on human form, and become human in order to serve and help our neighbors in every possible way. This is the very manner in which God in Christ acted and continues to act toward us. And this service ought to be done freely, having regard for nothing except the approval of God.

God, though completely free, took on the form of a servant in the incarnation. Through Jesus, God rejects power and uses God’s freedom to submit to, to serve and to empower the broken and weak. Freedom finds its ultimate expression in how we relate to others, not in how we behave to and for ourselves. The expression of freedom in the incarnation is one that binds itself to the well-being of others in a way that gives life.

This puts new perspective on the restrictions that Christians attempt to legislate against marriage equality. Or the ways in which churches restrict women and people who identify as queer from full participatory life within community. God help us restore agency, honor, and humanity to those whom we have stripped it from.

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In my previous post I attempted a different take on how the church often treats persons who identify as LGBT by peering through the lens of disability theology. The healing stories about Jesus prominently display what Nancy Eiesland called “disability-sin conflation.” That is, the clear connection between individual or generational sin and an individual’s disability. Persons are simultaneously healed and forgiven of their sins. Jesus forgiving and healing a paralyzed man in Mark 2 is a prime example. When the paralyzed man’s friends lower him through a roof as a last ditch effort to bring him before Jesus, Mark has Jesus exclaiming before the crowd, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” When the religious elite among the crowd accuse him of blasphemy, Jesus asks whether it is easier to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” or “Stand up and take your mat and walk.” Today, operating with the same assumptions about sickness or disability is both theologically and scientifically wrong, but this thinking still creeps into the theology of dominant Christianity, especially in regards to same-sex attraction. Within evangelicalism it is assumed that people who identify outside the realm of heterosexuality bear a disease, are emblematic of sin in the world, and must be healed of their sexual afflictions before they can be fully welcomed into community and participate in the body of God.

Rebecca Chopp writes, “From codes of purity to acts of Jesus’ healing, the implicit theological assumption has equated perfect bodies with wholeness of the spirit.”[1] Following the biblical model of disability-sin conflation implies two assumptions: (1) that the disabled individual lacks, as Chopp notes, wholeness of spirit, and (2) that the disabled individual must be made normal to experience the full life of community. These assumptions make bold claims regarding who is in and who is out based on the grounds of normativity, whether it is in regards to heterosexuality or to being able-bodied.

The question that surfaces through all of this discussion is this: What do disabled persons created in the image of God tell us about God? Moreover, what do the particularities of embodiment tell us about being human and being in the image and likeness of God? We need an inclusive theology that embraces diversity and difference as expressions of the multivalent image of the Triune God. One of the most striking notions to come from disability theology is a challenge to the images/metaphors of God that we construct. Chopp beautifully proclaims,

“The most astounding fact is, of course, that Christians do not have an able-bodied God as their primal image. Rather, the Disabled God promising grace through a broken body, is at the center of piety, prayer, practice, and mission. Indeed, the centrality of the Disabled God to Christian symbolic logic is a powerful image of resistance to oppressive constructs of ‘normal embodiment’ and an image of transformation for all persons created in the image of God.”[2]

Chopp’s words on the Disabled God as our primary image are powerful and offer an important and much needed alternative to the dominant view, which we might be able to call the Normal God. The Disabled God deconstructs our concepts of who and what is not only normal, but also whole. With this image in mind, it is in our brokenness that Jesus meets us and limps alongside us into God’s being, rather than in our ability, holiness, or purity.

So how do we read the Gospels in light of this? I believe that Ched Myers offers a positive reading for these  difficult healing texts. In Binding The Strong Man, Myers writes:

Mark’s Jesus seeks always to restore the social wholeness denied to the sick/impure by this symbolic order [unjust socio-political-religious structure]. That is why his healing of the sick/impure is virtually interchangeable with his social intercourse with them. To one ‘leper’ he offers a declaration of wholeness (1:41), to another simply the solidarity of table fellowship (14:3). Both acts defy the symbolic order that segregates those lacking bodily integrity; both challenge the prevailing social boundaries and class barriers. This is why Jesus the healer was a threat to ‘civic order.’[3]

[Marks healings] ‘challenged the very structures of social existence . . . healing an exorcism functioned to ‘elaborate’ the dominant symbolic order, unmasking the way in which it functioned to legitimate concrete social relationships. Insofar as this order dehumanized life, Jesus challenged it and defied its strictures: that is why his ‘miracles’ were not universally embraced. Depending on one’s status in the dominant order, one either perceived them as socially deviant (worse, heretical) or liberative.[4]

In closing, I’d like to reflect briefly on the scene from Mark 2. The faith of the four friends reveals an intimate social/relational shift that provides the foundation for the healing of the paralytic. The paralyzed man was not lowered through a roof by four Good Samaritan types, but by four friends. These four friends are modeling the type of social transformation that needs to take place, and the opposite of dis-otherizing. The four have put behind them the socio-religious taboos of disability and the reciprocal functions of friendship, and instead operate under the implication that the image of God has not left their friend, nor has it ever left anyone. Rather, the image of God may leave our field of vision, but has never left. For the four friends, the fear of becoming unclean was overcome by their desire for inclusion and of love for their friend. This act could not have been done had they not overcome the fear of the other and recognized the humanity of the paralytic. They acted out of love rather than fear. I’d like to believe with 1 John 4:18 that “perfect love casts out fear.”

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1. Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), foreword.
2. Ibid.
3. Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 146.
4. Ibid., 148.

Many voices have expressed their concern over texts of the Bible that lend themselves to oppression, exclusion and sexism, violence and colonialism. There is no denying that there are many problematic passages in the Bible, but one particular instance of exclusion has been lodged in my mind for a few weeks now. It is a passage from the Holiness Code section of Leviticus (chapters 12-26) and addresses the topic of disability among priests. I am not disabled, nor do I intend to speak for persons with disabilities. It is my goal here to explore an often overlooked passage and the implications it carries through the biblical text and a way that biblical attitudes toward disability have taken on a new life today.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and say: ‘No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy. But he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. (Leviticus 21:16-23)

Amos Yong claims that is is “important to note that persons with disabilities were not barred from the priesthood or from eating the priestly meals, but only from offering the sacrifices.”[1] He cites a rabbinic tradition that interprets the restrictions in terms of disabilities “being so obvious or as causing behavioral peculiarities such that the people are distracted from the solemnity of the liturgy.[2] Yong goes on to claim that

…persons with physical blemishes were not only a specially segregated class in regard to the sacrificial offering, but were also subject to the laws of uncleanness . . . At best, persons with disabilities were marginalized from central aspects of ancient Israel’s social and religious activities; at worst, they were excluded altogether.[3]

This at worst mentality is often the one that we encounter when the text introduces individuals with illnesses or disabilities. Where are these individuals? How are they portrayed? What is their demeanor? These persons who are sick or live with a disability are deemed unclean and become outcasted from the dominant community (a beautiful exception to this is 2 Samuel 9, which emphasizes the elevated status of Mephibosheth regardless of his physical condition). Generally speaking, persons with congenital diseases or disabilities were understood to be bearing the physical and visible effects of sin. The Second Testament reinforces this negative view of disability through the destitute recipients of Jesus’ healing. Forgiveness of sins and physical healing go hand in hand as outcasted and socially dislocated individuals with disabilities become restored both physically and socially. The late Nancy Eiesland points out the “sin and disability conflation” in passages like John 5:14, where Jesus is recorded as telling the just healed man not to sin anymore so that nothing worse will happen to him.[4]

From universal to particular, erasing normativity

Deborah Creamer states, “Some people have their disabilities from birth; others acquire them later in life. Disabilities may be attributed to accident, illness, or genetics.”[5]  In the pre-scientific context of the gospels, disability was generally attributed to personal or generational sin or disobedience. This helps to explain why Jesus is recorded as forgiving sin in conjunction with healing disability. However, in the stories of healing performed by Jesus, the themes of both pity and rejection of diversity float to the top of the text.  Rather than Jesus challenging the community regarding their negative views of the other (as he does for the woman caught in adultery), he dis-otherizes the outcasts by restoring them to a state of being physically abled, or “normal”.

Does Jesus heal the ones who need it most? What does the healing of individuals say about discrimination and group exclusion? Please do not hear me–a fully abled male–saying that I do not see hope or value for persons with disabilities in the stories of healing. What I am saying is that there is more going on in the text, and other valid readings present us with problems that should not be avoided. I think a case can be made that the Jesus-following community that develops is also the community of normativity. This conclusion is one in which dominant Christianity still operates, and a conclusion that must be dismantled.

Personally, I have been strongly influenced by the work of Sallie McFague and her formulation of a theology of embodiment. Deborah Creamer puts McFague’s work into conversation with a theology of disability. If you are familiar with McFague, this may excite you, too. Creamer writes:

The notion that experiences such as disability (or any individual particularity) are part of the whole of life and are to be accepted as such does, in fact, make for a powerful theological starting point. Rather than seeing disability and other particularities as an exception to some norm this viewpoint can help us begin to see that all instantiations of human embodiment are aspects of the realm of the body of God . . . Rather than overlooking or dismissing particularity as part of the randomness of life, McFague’s model ought to lead us to a perspective where we embrace particularity as part of the relation or revelation of God in the world. Particularity ought to be a significant datum for theological reflection. Following McFague’s claim that “the body of God is not a body, but all the different, peculiar, particular bodies about us.”[6]

She argues that the particular experiences of human beings––in all their diversity and differences––must be included in our God-talk and our understanding of the God-human relationship. What does this mean for how we do theology or imagine community and praxis? As I have been reflecting on disability in the Bible and reading theologies of disability, it is impossible to miss the glaringly obvious parallels between the language of disability theology and the experience of LGBT persons in the church. I am by no means associating same-sex attraction with disability––please don’t read that into this––but I am observing similarities in the way that Christianity approaches both the particularities of disability and the LGBT experience. Creamer exemplifies this trend:

Consideration of disability has found consistent treatment in the realm of pastoral care: how do we take care of people with disabilities, support their families, and address issues of suffering and healing? This pastoral focus may be influenced by the modern medical model (where one’s life is referred to by diagnostic category) which is deficit laden.[7]

One page later, she writes:

While many people with disabilities have found welcome in the church, many others still wait outside the gates . . . The community of faith has failed to honestly engage with people who have disabilities, to seek out and listen to their stories, and instead tends only to speak to or about them or does things for them. If they are not ignored altogether, people with disabilities have been talked to or talked about, not not included as key partners in the conversation of faith.[8]

The dominant Christian tradition approaches the LGBT community in the same vein. They are talked to or talked about without being included in the conversation, and they are viewed as in need of healing because they do not embody the heteronormative experience.  Some are indeed welcomed, but many more are still waiting outside the gates. In the foreword to Eiesland’s book, Rebecca Chopp notes that “from codes of purity to acts of Jesus’ healing, the implicit theological assumption has equated perfect bodies with wholeness of the spirit.”[9]

Carrying the analogy further, the refusal to acknowledge the particularity of the LGBT experience and instead operate under the universal notions of heterosexuality denies the body in the same way the particularity of intersex persons challenges binary concepts of gender. To identify outside of heteronormativity is understood as a blemish, to borrow from our Leviticus passage. Following the pattern of Jesus, instead of learning to love the LGBT (Other) community or the disabled (Other) and heal our discrimination and exclusion, the Church attempts to dis-otherize them. This happens by mitigating disability and not engaging it theologically and by reducing same-sex attraction to a disease that one can be healed of and consequently be accepted by those who are “normal”. That is, to heal them and make them acceptable to church communities and ultimately, make them acceptable to God because they are blemished, imperfect, abnormal, broken. The body of God becomes the idealized abled body of normativity rather than the broken-yet-resurrected body that all of us live into in our particular bodies and experiences. These two groups of Others differ, however, in the ways each is currently perceived by the dominant population in the States and in the Church; the disabled are viewed with pity and LGBT persons are viewed with fear. In light of these perceptions, I’d say that socially speaking, the sick and disabled of the Bible are close relatives with the LGBT community today on the grounds of fear, exclusion from society at large and, to borrow Eiesland’s terminology, disability-sin conflation.

Toward praxis

How do we read new life into the healing passages that affirm our differences and make room for wider inclusion and mindfulness of persons who fall outside our socially constructed norms? What images in scripture can we look to in order to affirm the Other? Further questions arise for me. Is dis-otherizing (taken as an action performed to or for an other so as to make an outcast acceptable) inherently bad? Are there instances where dis-otherizing someone is a positive thing, as opposed to challenging our own understandings of inclusion, relationship, power, and privilege within the realm of acceptability?

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1. Amos Yong, “Disability, the Human Condition, and the Spirit of the Eschatological Long Run,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, Volume 11:1 (2007), 7.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 9-10.
4. Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 72, 74.
5. Deborah Creamer, Toward a Theology that Includes the Human Experience of Disability,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, Volume 7:3 (2003), 61.
6. Deborah Creamer, “Including All Bodies in the Body of God,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, Volume 9:4 (2006), 11. 
7. Creamer, “Toward a Theology that Includes the Human Experience of Disability,” 5.
8. Ibid., 6.
9. Eiesland, The Disabled God, 11.